The Mulberry River originates near Fallsville, Arkansas in the Ozark Mountains. In 1922, it was included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers program and today is federally protected. The river is free-flowing (un-dammed), and only one of its tributaries (Hurricane Creek at Shores Lake) is controlled by a dam. The Mulberry River is located in northwestern Arkansas, in Johnson and Franklin Counties, and is part of the Arkansas River drainage basin. It somewhat parallels Big Piney Creek to the east, and provides a great whitewater trip with numerous Class I-III rapids and drops that challenge one's physical and mental capabilities. The Mulberry is normally an easy river that anybody can enjoy, but it is not recommended for anybody with less than an intermediate level whitewater proficiency whenever the stage is greater than 2.4 feet. It is better suited to experienced whitewater boaters who are properly equipped and outfitted. It is strongly recommended that lifejackets (PFDs) be worn at all times on this river. Expect colder water than is usually enjoyable in T-shirts and cut-offs - wetsuits or other warm clothing will usually make your trip more pleasant and exciting.
The clean, clear waters of the Mulberry are almost always very cool, and get very cold from late fall through early spring, so dress accordingly in Gore-Tex, Polartec, silk thermals, neoprene or wool socks and neoprene boots and gloves. The Fall-to-Spring period can be quite cold in the Ozarks, especially at night and early morning. If camping in the area, then a a "0" bag for winter, or one rated down to 30 degrees for the rest of the year, is strongly recommended. In planning a trip to the Mulberry ample consideration should be given to the elements so that you are prepared for camping and boating in whatever the environmental conditions are at the time. The water can be really cold even when the outside air temperature is very warm to hot.
The Mulberry River flows for about 62 miles, though the section that is most frequently paddled is a superb 45.2 mile whitewater roller coaster with at least 20 significant Class I-III rapids to negotiate, though the higher designations only exist in optimum water conditions that are higher than normal. Lashing all gear is strongly recommended. Physical stamina, quick thinking and the ability to self-rescue are of utmost importance. For those with the experience and determination to run the Mulberry there is an exhilirating experience awaiting you. SH 215, which parallels the river on the north side, is a paved road offering a very scenic view of the river and the opportunity to road scout most of the rapids, as well as low-water crossings and access points.
The Mulberry River sits in Johnson and Franklin Counties of northwestern Arkansas near, well, nothing! The closest major city is Fort Smith, about 30-35 miles away. The river flows northeast-to-southwest on the north side of the Arkansas River and west of Big Piney Creek.
Fort Smith 35 miles; Little Rock 125 miles; Texarkana 269 miles; Dallas 350 miles; Memphis 255 miles; San Antonio 700 miles; Houston 680 miles; Oklahoma City 315 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point and destination point on the river.)
Excellent quality. While seasonal and dependent upon recent local rainfall, the Mulberry River should be paddled between mid-October and mid-June, with the period from mid-March through mid-June considered to be the optimum time to run the river. Arkansas rivers are usually discussed in terms of stage (feet deep at the gauge) rather than flow (cubic feet per second, or cfs, for short). In the case of the Mulberry the stages and proficiency level required at each level are as follows:
Below 1.6 feet - very low water with almost no current and lots of dragging.
1.6 to 1.9 feet - great for beginners, with water that is low but floatable. Most rocks and shoals can be negotiated without dragging if you read the river properly and carefully select your line downriver.
2.0 to 2.3 feet - moderate whitewater that is challenging for beginners. No dragging should be expected.
2.4 to 2.9 feet - intermediate level whitewater skills are necessary. Many midstream rocks are still exposed giving a challenge in selecting a line downriver, though most rocks will be covered. Some of the rapids are prime at this level.
3.0 to 3.9 feet - strong intermediate whitewater skills are necessary. Prime whitewater with a very powerful current is prevalent. Most rocks are completely covered, but haystacks (big standing waves around rocks) can swamp open canoes. Airbags or other flotation is recommended for open canoes. Strong self-rescue skills are needed in case of an unplanned swim.
4.0 to 4.6 feet - strong advanced whitewater skills are necessary. The water is big and fast, with almost no pools. All the rocks are covered and some rapids are washed out. The river widens into the trees lining the bank, causing potential strainer and wrapping problems. Strong self-rescue skills are needed.
4.7 to 4.9 feet - no rental boats will be put on the river. If you come with your own boats and gear be sure you know the river and are prepared for what the river offers - a fast, bumpy ride that is a thrill when done right and a disaster when done wrong. Know your skills and proficiency - this is no time or place for naked bravery.
Above 5 feet - Perhaps you need to be considering a trip to anywhere else! AT this level the river may be unsafe. even for highly experienced river runners. Or, you could just hang out for a couple of days until the river drops to a great level, then have the time of your life.
Best water levels and weather conditions are usually found from mid-March to mid-June. It is generally advisable to avoid the river during July through September due to excessively low water, though recent local rainfall can change that in a minute.
There are numerous Class I-III whitewater rapids and willow strainers on the Mulberry, some of which can be very treacherous if you are not prepared and capable of negotiating them properly. Downed trees in and across the river, canoe-swamping standing waves, and sharp, twisting turns are all potential hazards waiting to bite the unsuspecting paddler. If you are on the river at stages above 4.0 feet, then stay in the main channel as the water spreads into the trees along the banks. With a gradient of 16 feet per mile on the upper half and 12 feet per mile on the lower half the Mulberry offers a fantastic ride to the whitewater paddler who is ready for the challenge.
Starting from the top, the major rapids are as follows (referenced from Wolf Pen Access): Toljuso Rapids at 0.2 miles; Moonshine Ford Rapid at 2.2 miles; PHD Rapid at 3.0 miles; Chainsaw Jungle Rapid just above High Bank at about 3.9 miles; Jump Start Rapid below the High Bank Access at about 4.1 miles; Whoop and Holler Rapids at 6.2 miles; unnamed rapid above the low water bridge at 9.3 miles; unnamed rapid at 13.0 miles; Sacroliliac Rapids at 14.5 miles; "S" Curve Rapid at 17.0 miles; Rockin' Horse Rapids (two rapids) at 21.1 miles; Ham Falls at 25.0 miles; Hell Roaring Falls Rapids at 28.5 miles; Wrecking Rock Rapid at 32.1 miles; Shakedown Rapid at 33.5 miles; The Shoe at 35.6 miles; Bow Dipper Rapid at 37.2 miles.
Wolf Pen Access and Recreation Area at 0.0 miles; High Bank Access off CO 83/FS 10103 at 4.0 miles; Byrd's Canoe Rental at 8.4 miles; Redding Recreational Area and Access at 12.0 miles; Turner Bend at Highway 23 and the river at 15.6 miles; Big Eddy Access (CO 111 / FS 1501) at 18.0 miles; Campbell Cemetery Access at 26.8 miles; Mill Creek Access at 39.7 miles; Old Silver Bridge at 43.2 miles (very difficult access); Blue Hole USACE Park at about 45.2 miles.
Turner Bend (479-667-3641), located at SH 23 and the Mulberry River, offers tent camping, cabin rentals, canoe/kayak/raft rentals, shuttles, river access, restrooms with flush toilets, hot showers, a camp store, river information and other services from friendly and knowledgeable people.
USFS Wolf Pen Access and Recreational Area (FREE on space available, first come basis); USFS Redding Recreational Area and Access (FREE on space available, first come basis); USFS Milton Ford (FREE on space available, first come basis); USFS Shores Lake Recreational Area and Campground (FREE on space available, first come basis). Camping facilities are also available from at least three commercial outfitters located along the Mulberry River.
Turner Bend (479-667-3641), located at SH 23 and the Mulberry River, offers tent camping, cabin rentals, canoe/kayak/raft rentals, shuttles, river access, restrooms with flush toilets, hot showers, a camp store, river information and other services from friendly and knowledgeable people. At least two other commercial outfitters offer rentals, shuttles and other services for the Mulberry River.
What can you say about the Mulberry except Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-ha!? The river is a super whitewater event that will long be remembered. Take a wetsuit or other warm paddling and camping clothing, because the water can be quite cold, even in warm weather, and nightime temperatures can get near or below freezing in fall, winter and spring. The Mulberry will challenge your decision making skills as much as your paddling skills. The last time I was there we spent about 90 minutes doing live throwbag practice - on people who did not have either the paddling or decision making skills necessary to be running that river at the higher flow of that day. These were not people who rented from local outfitters, but rather those who brought their own canoes because the water was high.
Camping in the Ozarks, especially around Easter, is an event in itself. The river just adds to the adventure. Because the Mulberry requires fast maneuvering it is highly recommended that you travel light. We usually camp at Turner Bend and have the options of putting in at Wolf Pen for a 15.6 mile trip down to camp, putting in at the camp and paddling down to Mill Creek or Old Silver Bridge for a 25.8 mile paddle, or for the hearty souls who cannot get enough, putting in at Wolf Pen and paddling all the way down to Mill Creek or Old Silver Bridge for a 43.2 mile trip, stopping in camp for lunch. But, there are plenty of other great camping areas, both public and private, available at the Mulberry.
The air is usually clean and clear, with millions of stars in the night sky. In 1997, I witnessed the most remarkable view of the Hale-Bopp Comet from the Turner Bend Campground, and it is something that I will remember for the rest of my life! It does get cool to cold in the Ozarks at night, so prepare accordingly. Safety gear (ropes, throwbags, caribiners, etc.) is strongly recommended at higher flows - you may need it to rescue yourself or somebody else. Swiftwater rescue training can play an important role in enjoying the Mulberry at higher flow rates. Any thrill you do not get from the Ozarks scenery will be provided by the roller coaster ride downriver. Good draw and rudder strokes are handy on this river. DO NOT attempt to run the Mulberry alone and do not attempt to run it in flood stage unless you have a death wish. But, if you are a whitewater enthusiast, then by all means, go to the Mulberry when it is staging over 2.5 feet, and get ready for a trip to talk about for many years to come!